LINE UP (2020) Raffaella della Olga Cloth on board with spiral binding of 28 card folios. H270 x W290 mm (closed). Edition of twenty-six, of which this is #8. Acquired from Three Star Books, 4 November 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.
Formerly a lawyer, Raffaella della Olga turned from the manipulation of legal text to the artistry of the letter and its “total expansion” — the book — as well as its manifestation in light and textiles. Her chief tool of art is a set of customized typewriters. Most of her works are unique pieces, each entitled with the emblematic letter T followed by the ordinal number of its creation — up to T28 as of this writing.
The limited edition of LINE UP offered an unusual opportunity to add to the Books On Books collection a work that resonates with its subset of abecedaries and one by an artist who shares a deep interest in another theme in the collection: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. Since 2009, she has created bookworks that reveal an artist’s and careful reader’s appreciation of the poem.
Title page and colophon from LINE UP. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.
LINE UP is very much a collaborative work between Raffaella della Olga and Three Star Books, founded in 2007 by Christophe Boutin and Mélanie Scarciglia with Cornelia Lauf (2007-2015). The edition consists of twenty-six spiral-bound copies, each with a unique cover produced by rubbings on canvas and differently colored. The title page and colophon take up two of the card folios in the volume, which leaves twenty-six for the printed content. Blocks of vertical blue lines turn the pages into letters based on the Epps-Evans alphabet, designed in the 1960s with only horizontal and vertical strokes in an attempt at machine readability.
Alphabet (1970) Timothy Epps and Dr. Christopher Evans Hilversum: de Jong & Co., 1970. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Discerning the letters in LINE UP feels sometimes like squinting one’s way through an optical illusion. The eye is bewitched by a color-shifting, almost stroboscopic effect created by four squares of embossed lines printed from the reverse side, always in the same position. Della Olga credits Christophe Boutin (Three Star Press) with introducing this effect.
The letters “a”, “b” and “c”.
Left: The four embossed squares seen from the verso. Right: The color shift between the embossed and flat squares.
The letter “k” at different angles of light.
The first of della Olga’s works reflecting the influence of Mallarmé’s poem was Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009), which was shown in the Gulbenkian’s “Pliure” exhibition in Paris in 2015. In a darkened room with an attendant turning the pages, the poem’s words, painted in phosphorescent powder, flickered into existence.
A year later came this rendition: Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010). Although the link goes to an online presentation, the work is analogue and unique. In correspondence (9 December 2020), Della Olga writes, “I took apart the book the Gallimard edition as a whole, without the paratext. I folded the double pages and deleted with white paint the part of the poem that appear.” A close look at the framed pages reveals the faint shadows of the painted-over text. On the wall, the permutation arises in the changeable order of hanging, which the online algorithm permits the viewer to perform.
Her most recent homage to Mallarmé’s poem is Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018). Like Constellation with its reference to and enacting of the poem’s constellation metaphor, and like Permutation with its reference to and enacting of chance, Trame well reflects della Olga’s penetration of the poem and transformation of it into artwork that stands strongly on its own and in comparison with other works of homage by Marcel Broodthaers, Michalis Pichler and Cerith Wyn Evans.
The word trame is le mot juste in its application to the work and its referent. Its meanings — frame, woof, weft and weaving — shift across the work’s technique and material and evoke the poem’s typographical weaving as a framework with which to realize the “total expansion of the letter”.
Here’s hoping for further expansion into limited editions.
Spencer, Herbert, and Colin Forbes. New Alphabets A to Z (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974). Source of the artist’s first encounter with the Epps-Evans alphabet. (Correspondence with Books On Books, 6 December 2020)
Hand bound. H325 x W250, 32 pages. Edition of 400, of which this is #8. Acquired from Stefan Schuelke, 30 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Look carefully at this work’s text and images. On its cover, the author’s and artists’ names are hard to make out, overlapping one another as they do, as do the subtitles: Mallarmé and Poème in red, Broodthaers and Image also in red, and Maranda and Livre in black. Between Mallarmé and Broodthaers, it is hard to say technically whose name and subtitle came first in the printing; who and what are overprinting whom and whose? Unbroken as the letters are, though, Michael Maranda and Livre must have come last.
The title page offers a bit more legibility, but the printing hijinks continue. Poème/Mallarmé and Image/Broodthaers no longer occupy the same space and are just perceptible in white lettering created by the ocean of cream-colored ink surrounding them. Along with the poem’s title, Livre/Maranda appear in black.
Then comes the Foreword, and the hijinks strain the eyes even more. At first, it seems that the Foreword has been badly printed. Not only badly printed, but badly translated from Mallarmé’s original: “I would want that one did not read this note or that pass through, even one forgot it”!? Only Maranda’s online artist’s statement explains the how and why of the poor translation:
To highlight the transformation of the reception of the poem by Broodthaers edition, the preface of this edition is Mallarmé’s original one, translated from French to Dutch and then to English using the online translator, Babble [sic] Fish. Michael Maranda, “Statement“, 2008. Accessed 6 August 2020.
That may explain the poor English translation, but what about the poor printing job? Actually, the printwork is precise, and the cover and title page offer the clues to this in their overprinting and reversed-out inking, respectively. The mangled English of the foreword has been printed in black, but the French of the préface appears as the absence of the cream-colored ink. Organizing the printing so that the black ink is broken up by those letters formed from the absence of ink is precision indeed.
Maranda calls his work a “meditation on les blancs“, the term that Mallarmé used in his 1897 preface to Un Coup de Dés to draw attention to the blank spaces surrounding the carefully scattered lines of verse. Taking Mallarmé at his word, Broodthaers drew attention to les blancs by blacking out the text with rectangles and parallelograms reflecting the type’s sizes and styles. In all of the pages that follow the preface, Maranda inks in Mallarmé’s and Broodthaers’ blancs with cream-colored ink. Paradoxically, Mallarmé’s text and Broodthaers’ black stripes have become blank spaces, and les blancs to which they drew attention have been filled with cream-colored ink.
The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Carrión.
Maranda’s Livre stands among several works of erasure and excision paying homage to Un Coup de Dés in its 1914/1969 iterations — think of those by Jérémie Bennequin, Cerith Wyn Evans and Michalis Pichler — but by titling his work as he does, Maranda also pays homage to Mallarmé’s lifelong conceptual holy grail of le Livre — that work that everything in the world comes to be. By overlaying Mallarmé’s Poème and Broodthaers’ Image with his meditation on les blancs, Maranda may be implying that visual language is the complete language in which that most beautiful and perfect book can be written.
Yet Maranda’s Livre ends with a colophon that suggests he takes himself no more seriously than his immediate predecessor in the palimpsest did:
This edition is published by Art Metropole. It was not printed in Belgium.
H500 x W350 mm. Edition of 200, of which this is #162. Acquired from the artist, 15 April 2019.
In size, Larosche’s Un Coup de Dés outdoes most other versions and homage — except those that are installations. The large black cover suggests a dark movie screen on which Larosche’s version of the poem will play out in 3D. But why 3D? Trying to read Un Coup de Dés while wearing a pair of 3D glasses challenges the eyes’ patience just as much as the poem’s ambiguities challenge the mind’s. Within the Coup de Dés genre, there is a necessary strain of strained humor. Without it, art runs the risk of taking us too seriously.
Confirming this joking intention behind his version, Larosche commented to Books On Books:
I originally handmade the book so that it was to worn on the nose like a large pair of glasses, which was another practical joke because the letters were too close to read, as in so 3D that it was literally in your face. — Brian Larosche, 2 April 2020.
Even with puns and slapstick there is often a point. The anaglyphic print technique and sheer size of Larosche’s version draw attention to Mallarmé’s sculptural play with type size and layout on a 2D surface as well as the poem’s spatial metaphors that align with it. In Mallarmé’s original, the staggering and dispersal of lines and single words on the page buttress, and are buttressed by, the word images of a roiling sea, shipwreck and constellation. Other artists with other techniques have drawn attention to that sculptural play and those spatial metaphors: Marcel Broodthaers‘ superimposed black bars, Michalis Pichler‘s and Cerith Wyn Evans‘ cut-outs, Sammy Engramer‘s sonograms sculpted in PVC and Eric Zboya‘s computer graphic “translation”.
Other artists have also poked serious fun at Un Coup de Dés and each others’ homage. Jim Clinefelter teases the sonority of the poem with his A Throw of the Snore Will Surge the Potatoes (1998). With her Rubik’s cube version (2005), Aurélie Noury needles the poem’s and poet’s puzzle pose. With their piano-roll versions, Rainier Lericolais (2009) and Pichler (2016) pick on Broodthaers (1969) as well as Mallarmé (1897) for their spatial metaphors and, in Mallarme’s case, his assertions of musicality. In Rodney Graham’s version (2011), Popeye substitutes for le Maître as the ship’s captain.
Larosche’s perceptively humorous rendering of Un Coup de Dés has earned it a secure perch among the other birds of the homage feather, and the use of 3D glasses seems to invite another layer of homage from artists interested in virtual reality headgear and augmented reality devices.
As with many of the homage to Un Coup de Dés, the subtitle here matters. For Bennequin, it was “Homage” with it missing “m” from the French; for Broodthaers, “Image”; for Engramer, “Wave”; for Pichler, “Sculpture” and “Musique”; for Zboya, “Translations”. Graham’s subtitle, being in quotation marks, indicates that what follows is a missive, not a form. The missive addressed to a local tattoo artist was arranged à la Mallarmé and described an image of Popeye that Graham wanted. But the twist that makes Graham’s version work is the translation of the instructions into French and their publication in the 1913 format of Mallarmé’s poem. This is an intricate “set-up”. In a way, it is analogous to Mallarmé’s careful attention to the positioning of words and lines, the kind of mise-en-scène that characterizes much of Graham’s photography and painting.
Tattered Sails(2018) Derek Beaulieu Saddle-stitched, one staple, colored endpapers; 12 unnumbered pages. H217 x W140 mm. Acquired from Above/Ground Press, 12 March 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Few book artists inspired by Broodthaers’ homage to Mallarmé have seized on aligning a key textual and visual metaphor of the poem with a distortion of Broodthaers’ treatment. That is what Beaulieu has done with Mallarmé’s metaphor of the shipwreck, his typographic replication of it and Broodthaer’s black bars. Tattered Sails also recalls Broodthaers’ A voyage on the North Sea (1973).
Photos: upper, Books On Books Collection; lower, Artists’ Books. Accessed 18 June 2020.
In one sense, Tattered Sails seems to underline the notion that image has supplanted text (W.J.T. Mitchell), which is a little less extreme than image’s having saturated all cultural space (Frederic Jameson) or than art’s just being now a “leeching of the aesthetic out into the social field in general” (Rosalind Krauss). But in another sense, by harking back to the low-tech era of democratic multiples and, nevertheless, enriching the interplay of text and image that spans four different artworks (counting the image on the cover) across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Beaulieu pushes back on those 20th century critical notions.
Away from the critical theories’ abyss, Tattered Sails refreshes perception — of the work in itself and those on whose metaphors and techniques it stands. Turning our eyes into hands, it is part of a book art genre –“a genre of Un Coup de Dés“– in which works not only recall the original’s words, their shapes on the pages, the shipwreck tangling and untangling of syntax, the images and meanings bouncing into view like numbers on the side of rolling dice but also recall the rolls of the dice by others before.
The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019) Benjamin Lord Laid finish card cover; hand-assembled perfect binding with inlaid red linen thread; 70 pages printed on translucent cellulose paper. H10 1/2″ x W8 1/4. Edition of 50, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 24 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The title of Benjamin Lord’s book names what Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés declares can never be accomplished: the abolition of chance. Taking the predicate of Mallarmé’s title (its verb and object), elevating it to the title position, substituting the word “sequence” for the subtitle Poéme, and placing it in a cover layout reminiscent of the 1913 NRF edition of Mallarmé’s book, Lord’s cover raises expectations and questions. Perhaps chance can be abolished? Perhaps by a certain sequence — of words?
Bowling over the textual expectations raised by the cover, the interior pages offer only images — images that gradually shift from linearly arranged black rectangles to what seem to be digitally generated Rorschach tests, shifting QR codes or snapshots of a bitmap computer game, all blurred by the turning of the translucent paper. The translucency and images add another layer to each page and double-spread of images and also add another set of expectations and questions. What determined the starting point of those arranged rectangles? What drives the sequence of their change?
Without Lord’s own description of the work, a highly developed form of art-historical, science-historical visual genius is required to answer those questions. A genius with the visual recall to recognize that “The first spread of the book copies the last spread of Marcel Broodthaer’s book Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), made in 1969.” A genius that can recognize the sequence as being “generated using a simple mathematical formula known as the Game of Life, originally devised by the mathematician John Conway, also in the year 1969.”
On the left is a “still-life” seed known as “Boat”; on the right is “Gosper’s glider gun”, an obviously more complicated pattern named after its creator, Bill Gosper. A forerunner of simulation games, Conway’s game poses a set of simple rules to be played out within an infinite grid:
Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by underpopulation.
Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
Here is Gosper’s glider gun, activated by the Game of Life’s rules encoded in a GIF:
Lord’s seed is the image of the last double-page spread in Broodthaers’ version of Un Coup de Dés.
Like a more complex glider gun, it generates the subsequent double-page spread images, each image being the seed for the next image. As Lord puts it,
The lines of Mallarmé’s poem inflate into balloons which expand and then pop into nothingness, or collide with each other to generate debris, or collapse into thicker bars. The image fragments into a vibratory bitmap constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive.
This 21st century American artist turning with a 20th century paintbrush dipped into the words of a 19th century French poet via a 20th century Belgian artist calls to mind The Education of Henry Adams. Throughout, Adams refers to himself in the third person. Post-Broodthaers, there is something “third-person-ish” — of being at two removes — in Lord’s homage and those of Beaulieu et al. above. But there is more to the recollection than grammar. Consider this passage from The Education in which “one” writes,
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant….he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.Chapter XXV
Adams and his third-person self were in Paris in May 1897, when Un Coup de Dés first appeared in the quarterly Cosmopolis. Despite their proximity, a common interest in quarterlies and the popular press, and a near obsession with the electrical forces of the dynamo, the men’s two paths did not cross. Adams mentions Mallarmé in a letter only in passing.
Sartre called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness. Its title and Lord’s description of The Abolition of Chance as a “constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive” suggest an alternative to nothingness. The final double-page spread does present a pattern of live cells. Lord, perhaps like his fellow American, responds to nothingness with a type of Buddhist repose, if not affirmation, much as Adams responded to the memorial for his wife that he had commissioned from Augustus St. Gaudens:
His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant. … From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. Chapter XXI
As many bookworks do, Wyn Evans’ “…” offers a puzzle. In this case: What has been omitted? What is coming after the pause or delay?
In his brief essay at the end of the book, Moritz Küng describes this work as a catalogue for Wyn Evans’ exhibition (15 October 2009 – 10 January 2010, deSingel, International arts campus, Antwerp) and characterizes it as “a reciprocate hypertext”, recalling the “trilogy of Un coup de dés by Mallarmé , Broodthaers  and Wyn Evans ”.
The work “…” (2009) alludes to those other three works by form and materiality, not actual text. It uses the same trim size of the 1914, 1969 and 2008 works. The 2009’s laser cut text is positioned in a way to imply the placement of text in the 1914 work, the placement of black strips in the 1969 work and the positioning of excised blocks in the 2008 work. The 2009 work’s subtitle — DELAY — is even positioned exactly where the subtitle is displayed in the three earlier works. Of course, the title page and subtitle in Wyn Evans’ 2008 version of Un Coup de Dés went along with the rest of his variation on Broodthaers’ 1969 work: the pages are framed and hung, allowing the pebbled wall behind the excisions to show through.
But where the 2008 work excises text, “…” excises paper to create text. The actual text in “…” comes from Stephan Pfohl’s review of Guy Debord’s filmscript In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni: A Film (1991). (The Latin is a palindrome — reads the same backwards as forwards — written by Terenziano Màuro, a grammarian and poet of the late second century CE.)
Permit yourself to drift from what you are reading at this very moment into another situation … Imagine a situation that, in all likelihood, you’ve never been in.
Photos: Books On Books Collection
Without knowing the text in question, deciphering the laser cut is a bit difficult, especially also until it becomes apparent that the letter “e” systematically falls below the line. Notice how this happens with “permit” and “yourself” above. Is it a reference to George Perec’s novel LaDisparution (1969), written entirely without the letter “e”? Is it an interruption to delay the reader in following an instruction not yet deciphered and read? There is something more going on here than meets the eye — which is, of course, what an omission or pause implies.
If another display in Wyn Evans’ 2009 deSingel exhibition is taken into account, and if Pfohl’s review is explored further, the laser cutting of the letters offers something else not immediately obvious to the eye. Wyn Evans could have chosen die cutting for the letters but chose (or at least approved) laser cutting instead. The signature singeing from the laser comes with the choice. To what is the choice alluding?
Details of “…” Photos: Books On Books Collection
Is it alluding to the firework display that spelled out Debord’s 1978 film title, which translates “We go round and round at night and are consumed by fire”? As Pfohl explicates the filmscript and highlights Debord’s anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist and near-nihilist point of view informing it, he quips, “Look out for the flames”. Is the singeing alluding to that?
How does the reader/viewer of “…” know to make these connections, to fill in the omissions? Well, after the pause/delay come Küng’s essay and the colophon, which provide many but not all of the clues with which to make the connections.
Knowledge of — or the presence of — the 1914 edition of Un coup de Dés, Broodthaers’ 1969 version and Wyn Evans’ 2008 re-version seems essential. Attendance at the fireworks display — or finding the images in the deSingel archive — would seem necessary to make sense of Küng’s reference to the artist’s “fireworks texts”. For the reader/viewer ignorant of Debord’s last and autobiographical film, access to Pfohl’s essay is essential to connect that particular film with Küng’s reference. Also, access to Pfohl’s essay is essential to see the context of the sentences Wyn Evans extracts, essential to find the Latin title of Debord’s film, and essential to pick up Pfohl’s quip.
Does the burden of the elusive, multi-layered allusiveness and self-referencing placed on the reader/viewer diminish and interfere with the work or enhance and help it? Depends on the reader/viewer. Or as Terenziano put it, Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli (The fate of books lies in the capability of their readers).
The colophon also provides a set of details that can shape the reader/viewer’s appreciation of “…” — DELAY. It assigns the concept to Wyn Evans, Armand Mevis and Moritz Küng, the overall graphic design to Mevis & van Deursen and the layout design to Paul Elliman, whose Albernaut font was used for the excised text. Collaboration as recorded in a colophon grounds this work in a lineage that extends far beyond Mallarmé and Vollard. Even before the printed codex, the colophon, or finishing touch, to a scroll or manuscript book recorded how collaborative the effort to make a book actually is. Although book art is leavened with Blakean works of individual creation, the works of artists such as Cerith Wyn Evans remind us how this object is so often the result of multiple talents going round and round and catching fire.
Further Reading, Viewing and Listening
“Cerith Wyn Evans”, desingel.be. Accessed 15 March 2020.
With the exception of Unpacking my Library, Spector’s works in the Books On Books Collection fall into the category of ephemera. Unlike much other ephemera such as invitations, broadsides and the like, however, these items have that self-reflexiveness so characteristic of book art.
Artist, curator and historian Jeffrey Abt wrote that the “irresistible” idea of placing an exhibition of artists’ books alongside the University of Chicago Library’s collection “broadly representative of the history of the book” started with a visit to famed art dealer Tony Zwicker‘s studio. It was also, however, almost as if he were taking a cue from this statement by artist-printers Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo just the year before:
A representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery, where a wide range of visual experience is the norm. The same collection, installed in a library or bookstore, can seem visually startling almost beyond the limits of decorum. — “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses”).
While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, but before Mallarmé, there was William Blake — the works included and the catalogue’s design ring some chimes of their own about book art. One way or another, all book art self-consciously draws attention to some particularly bookish element. For the most part, the 49 works listed in this catalogue ring true. The catalogue’s design itself, however, not only chimes to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.
Not long after this exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures, cover, letter forms and their placement on the page, etc. — as having a syntax (“Going Over the Books”). With its pencil-circled numbers, alignment guides, pastedowns and other designer’s marks appearing throughout — as if a printer’s devil had run amok and let the marked-up proofs go to press unchanged — the catalogue draws attention to that syntax, the underlying processes of bookmaking and, therefore, this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page jokingly rings the self-reflexive chime of the markings throughout the catalogue.
The second chime comes in the catalogue’s verbal and visual punning. Like book art, punning is self-reflexive, words playing on words. The title ”the book made art” can be read with different meanings: “the book made into art”, “art that is bookish” and so on. The catalogue’s trim and two-dimensional representation of three-dimensions create the visual pun of a glass or white cube. The verbal and visual puns also play with Abt’s “irresistible” context. Here in the Joseph Regenstein Library was an exhibition catalogue, teasing the viewer with a reminder that vitrines separated them from the bookworks. Reviewing two other exhibitions of book art, Spector elaborated explicitly on his visual tongue-in-cheek irony:
The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. … and it is a morethan passing irony that implications of hermeticism and elitism should surround books shown to a public using the library as a means of gaining access to texts. — “Art Readings”.
The catalogue also teases with its title and design by suggesting that once books have been placed on display like this, the setting is no longer a library but a “white cube gallery“. As the catalogue progresses, black-and-white photos of items from the exhibition appear on the verso page in frames that appear to be hanging on the trompe l’oeil cube’s rear wall.
Poster distributed on the University of Chicago campus. The image combines Michael Kostiuk’s Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82) with a variation of the catalogue cover. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding the finished catalogue might have asked, “What makes these objects I cannot touch — or, in some cases even if I could, cannot read — art?” There is the catalogue’s third chime. From the start, book art has faced a constant definitional or identity crisis and even the challenge “but is it art?” The catalogue’s title echoes Lucy Lippard’s Duchampian proposition: “It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is”. The catalogue’s design says, “This is the gallery, these are the objects on display in it, they are art”.
The “white cube gallery” brings on a fourth and final ironic chime. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, artists’ books were pitched as a “democratic” medium and means by which art could escape the clutches of the gallery and reach a wider public. In another catalogue — the one for the 1973 Moore College exhibition, nominated as the first of book art — John Perreault writes:
Books as art, from the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s point of view, are practical and democratic. They do not cost as much as prints. They are portable, personal, and, if need be, disposable. Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralisation of the art system. — “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”.
By the mid-80s, lo and behold, The Book Made Art’s catalogue-cum-gallery jokingly recaptures “books as art”. And in a further irony, by the mid-80s and since, the increased rareness and price of such bookworks have made them into galleries‘ and museums’ expensive objects of desire. Including this catalogue.
The Library of Babel (1991)
The Library of Babel Curated and edited by Todd Alden; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector. Dos-à-dos binding, offset. H241 x 177 mm Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls Inc., 1991.
As with The Book Made Art, Spector uses the cover (this time with a photograph of The Library of Babel) to introduce the self-reflexivity so characteristic of book art, but he does not stop there. Pagination and the back-to-back binding structure work together to evoke a mirror’s reflection; the last page of the first half “faces” the last page of the second half.
The first half contains Todd Alden’s essay “The Library of Babel: Books to Infinity”, Paul Holdengräber’s “Unpacking Benjamin’s Library: Bibliomania in Dark Times”, and a checklist of the 34 works by their 10 artists.
The second half contains half-tones of selected works and brief CVs of the artists. Among the half-tones are also photographs of works referenced by Alden (one by Jasper Johns, two by Marcel Broodthaers). Notice how the rules change position in the footers of the two halves, again evoking the back-to-front theme of the dos-à-dos binding.
As in The Book Made Art, Spector had an entry in “The Library of Babel“ exhibition. With its torn pages, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) echoes Altered LeWitt, but it is instead a work 10 feet long and presented on a table appropriately jutting out from the wall like a pier. “M.B.” is Marcel Broodthaers, to whose works there are multiple and layered references. The eleven “waves” of torn pages placed in a row on top of the steel shelf are the excised material from another of Spector’s works: Marcel Broodthaers, made from eleven copies of the Walker Art Center’s 1987 catalog to Broodthaers’s first U.S. retrospective. Spector painted all the pages in each copy with white gesso before excising them and leaving behind his 1990 “altered Broodthaers”.
Marcel Broodthaers (1990) Buzz Spector An altered copy of: Marcel Broodthaers. Minneapolis/New York: Walker Art Cente/Rizzoli, 1989.
He saved the excised “wedges” and bound them at the fore edges. Because the gesso does not completely obscure the text and images from the catalogs, viewers who come close to the work can see slivers of some of Broodthaers’ works along with the word fragments typical of Spector’s altered books.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Spector’s library contains a copy of Broodthaers’ 1974 artist book, A Voyage on the North Sea. These layered references and self-references — direct references to Broodthaers’ A Voyage, indirect references through the self-reference to Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers (1990) — bring into sparkling focus two features of book art and, in particular, late 20th century book art: reverse ekphrasis and bookworks in conversation with one another.
When a visual work of art inspires poetry or prose, the literary result is called ekphrastic: “the verbal representation of visual representation”. But where the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell, for example, use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel and Donatello’s sculpture of “David” — book artists have in turn used the letter, words, actual books, the physical materials of the book or even the shape of books, their functions or processes of making them to create works of art. A kind of ekphrasis in reverse.
Not only does Spector perform this reverse ekphrasis with exhibition catalogs in North Sea (M.B.), he does it in conversation with a multimedia work by Broodthaers. Works in conversation with one another is also a common occurrence in poetry. An entire anthology showcases these poems that talk to other poems. The later work not only evokes the earlier work, it illuminates and adds to it. In book art, other instances include Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), a one-sheet folded book of photos of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) being set on fire and burning to ash, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman (1970), a leporello which refers to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1967), a video in which the artist pours over 50 pounds of flour on a mock talk-show studio floor and then sculpts it into ephemeral shapes. Nauman’s shift to an ingenious folded single-sheet structure and Oppenheim’s shift (and pun) to an accordion view of flowers are part of the addition to their conversations with their very structurally different counterparts. Spector’s shift to the sculptural is part of the addition to his conversation with Broodthaers’ book and video. Consider not only Spector’s gessoed sea of pages and the pier, but also those two 19th century black bronze sailing ship bookends evoking the 19th century nautical painting that Broodthaers appropriated in A Voyage on the North Sea.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Unpacking my Library (1995)
Unpacking my Library (1994-95) Buzz Spector Leporello full-colour offset printed; folded H100 x W155 mm, unfolded W3600 mm; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Installation exhibited at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994.
Clearly from his entry in The Library of Babel, Spector’s artistic output extends beyond altered books and catalogue design to larger scale installations. One of the more well-known, Unpacking my Library imposes multiple orders on what Walter Benjamin called “the chaos of memories”. How “multiple orders”? First, because of its subtleties; second, because of its several forms.
From the start at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994, the installation imposed the order of “descending height” on Spector’s library, unpacked and displayed across one shelf attached along the white walls of a room in the gallery. The single shelf ran 188 feet.
Although Spector is rejecting the library’s traditional method of making sense of a collection of books — ordering by academic category — in favor of a physical criterion, the title imposes another method of making sense — allusion. The installation makes “more” sense if you have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library — A Talk on Collecting” (1931). If you haven’t, then, on the reverse of the leporello produced with the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, are these two sentences from the essay:
This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
So what has ordering by height to do with the chaos of memories? Well, if the order of the personal library had been chronological by acquisition, that would be an assertion against chaos, a kind of aide- mèmoire. If the order had been by the library’s traditional method, again that would be an assertion against chaos. Benjamin and Spector embrace the chaos. Spector’s at-first amusing and puzzling organization of his library prods the viewer into the chance to do somewhat the same — to wander along the shelf with that phrase of process hovering in the mind and be reminded of books once read (when? where?), familiar and almost-familiar names and places (from when or where?) and subjects studied (what did that cover?). But the viewer also experiences a surge of unknown names, places and subjects, and spines that mystify.
The allusion to Benjamin’s essay offers another way of making sense of this experience into which the viewer is prodded. If a personal library is a kind of self portrait you can detect from the clues that its usual groupings into fiction, biographies, history, science, etc., give us about the owner, then here the order by height washes them and the portrait away. And if the viewer knows the essay, Benjamin’s last sentence may come to mind:
So I have erected one of [the real collector’s] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he going to disappear inside, as is fitting. — Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
Spector mentions this disappearance in a video record of the making and showing of the installation. Whether or not the installation’s spectator knows Benjamin’s essay, the installation’s title is a clue to the imposition of a fictional order. “Unpacking my library” is a phrase implying an activity that is just getting going. For his essay, Benjamin created the fiction of the reader’s being present as the library is being unpacked. Likewise for Spector’s installation, any spectator walking into it has entered a fiction. Spector’s library has already been unpacked, sorted on the floor and placed on the single shelf running around the room.
Of course, however, the owner of the leporello form of Unpacking my Library does not experience this fiction as directly. The opening and arranging of the leporello is a hands-on activity; the unpacking of Spector’s library occurs panel by panel in the reader’s hands. The library’s arrangement by height appears more gradually than in the gallery. Once the bookwork is fully extended, the installation’s fiction then becomes more readily available to the leporello’ s reader/viewer.
As fictions, Benjamin’s essay and Spector’s installation need an ending. Benjamin’s technique is to disappear into his collection. Spector chooses a different technique. In correspondence with Books On Books, he writes:
The length of all the publications in my library was 165 feet; the single shelf, at the UCSD Art Gallery, on which they were placed ran 188 feet. That additional space implied a future, and life-affirming, growth of my collection. — Buzz Spector, 26 March 2020.
Whether it is leporello or installation, the reader/viewer of Unpacking my Library is launching and launched on this open-ended ending.
The Book Maker’s Desire (1995)
The Book Maker’s Desire: Writings on the Art of the Book Buzz Spector Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995. 2nd printing. Cover design by Buzz Spector. Image: History of Europe (1983) by Buzz Spector; plaster over found book, 10.5 x 12 x 15 inches.
Spector’s essays are tonic. His comments on Margaret Wharton’s bookworks could refresh any reader and viewer lucky enough to see her works (Union League Club-Chicago or Yale) or remind the viewer of them when looking at works by later artists such as Thomas Wightman or the “Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh”. In the past few months, Walter Hamady and John Baldessari have died, and Spector’s essays on them bring them both and particular works of theirs to present life. His essay and letter on Broodthaers would enhance any reading of the artists who have stood on Broodthaers’ shoulders to address Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés: Bennequin, Mutel, Pichler, Wyn Evans, Zboya. The essay “Going Over the Books” may have inspired Alden’s curation of ‘The Library of Babel” exhibition.
The essays are not entirely the point of having The Book Maker’s Desire in the Books On Books Collection. What completes the point is the cover design. The object on the book’s front cover is Spector’s own work History of Europe (1983), which pays homage to Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête (1964). But look closer. The cover stock has elements of text and colour seeping through, almost as if it were made of shredded books. The aptness and artistry of the cover design make The Book Maker’s Desire an object of desire in and of itself.
Between the Sheets (2003)
Between the Sheets (2003)
Cloth over boards, Japanese stab binding, 15 folded sheets, outer sides offset printed with enlarged “artist photos” clipped from dust jackets of art books repurposed by Spector for his bookworks, inner side printed (recto only) with text by and selected by Spector. H157.5 x W216 x D12.7 mm. Edition of 40, of which this is #40. Acquired from Olive Branch Press, 26 June 2020.
Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), p. 160.
Lippard, Lucy. “New Artist’s Books” in Artists’ Books. A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press,1985), p. 53.
Mathews, Emily, and Sylvia Page. “Off the Shelf and Into the Gallery: Librarians on Spector”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 9-15.
Otten, Liam. “A sea of torn pages“, The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 26 February 2010. Accessed 26 March 2020.
Perrault, John. “Some Thoughts on Books as Art” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973, curated by Dianne Perry Vanderlip (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.
Schlesinger, Kyle. “The Missing Book”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 17-25.
Spector, Buzz. “Going Over the Books” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 8.
Spector, Buzz. “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 13.
Spector, Buzz. “I stack things. I tear stuff up”, Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: selected works, Bruno David Gallery, January 22 — March 6, 2010 (Saint Louis, MO: Bruno David Gallery, 2010).